A national Catholic social justice organization made St. Louis the first stop on its seven-state bus tour as it travels the country ahead of Pope Francis' upcoming U.S. visit.
The so-called "Nuns on the Bus" with the group NETWORK pulled into Kiener Plaza Thursday for an event that often resembled a political rally, with a cheering crowd of area nuns and social activists holding signs high against a background including the Arch and the Old Courthouse.
Exiting the bus wasn't a politician, but instead about a dozen Catholic nuns, led by NETWORK executive director Sister Simone Campbell. She said their goal is to draw attention to healthcare access, living wages and racial inequality, which is why St. Louis was the right place to start their journey.
"We know that the divide of race is so iconic here in St. Louis, whether you all know it or not - that's how the city is seen," she said. "We have got to start to bridge the divide of race...so we thought here in the shadow of the Arch, which is the gateway to the hope of the west, and in the shadow of the courthouse where the Dred Scott Decision was made, where our anguish as a nation was symbolized, with those two symbols, we can go from anguish to hope."
Sister Judith Best, a School Sister of Notre Dame based in St. Louis, is one of the nuns going on the bus, though she'll depart the twelve-city tour in Indianapolis while the rest will head to Washington, D.C.
"Basically, we are going to different cities and talking to people about really trying to bridge the divide that separates us, drawing people together to solve common problems, but mostly listening with compassion to stories of real people and then raising those stories up and hopefully sharing these stories in Washington, D.C., and then with the Pope."
While the nuns don't have an audience with the Pope during his U.S. visit, Sister Campbell will attend the Pope's address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24 as a guest of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Activists call for change
Though billed as a social justice rally, there were some political themes on display Thursday. Naomi Carranza, a local activist with Latinos en Axión, called for immigration reform, explaining that because she remains undocumented she pays more for her university classes than her other Missouri classmates. Missourian Terry McCallister said she is caught in the so-called "Medicaid gap" and owes thousands of dollars after a recent hospitalization.
Saint Louis University adjunct professor Julian Long talked about his efforts with St. Louis Adjunct Action to create a union for adjunct professors. He said he hoped that Pope Francis would call on his fellow Jesuits at universities around the country to adopt better wage policies for adjuncts.
Home healthcare worker and union member Elinor Simmons said while she has worked in the industry for decades helping to give seniors and the disabled a "dignified life" in their homes, she only makes $8.50 an hour. She said home healthcare workers need a living wage, and though an agreement was made with the Missouri Home Health Care Council, Gov. Jay Nixon has not signed it.
"What we haven’t done is change the economic reality for the majority," Campbell said. "A few people have been able to get out of poverty. People born into poverty in Britain have more of a chance of moving out of poverty than in the United States. That’s shocking and that’s wrong, and so much of it is done on the backs of people of color."
In one of the more emotional moments of the rally, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 788 president Michael Briehan teared up as he referenced the recent shooting death of nine-year-old Jamyla Bolden and called for an end to violence in the St. Louis region.
Campbell echoed his words, calling for tougher gun control, but also a less tangible solution.
"The tougher piece is how we are afraid of each other, that I feel threatened by you or you feel threatened by me," she said. "That’s what’s wrong. We have to ease the fear and the only way to ease the fear is to know each other, and what Pope Francis is doing is we have to walk towards everyone with love and find out your story and you can find out my story and then it’s clear: I don’t have a reason to be afraid. And once we quit being afraid of each other, violence will cease, and then maybe we’ll have peace."
Nuns' ability to bridge divides
For whatever political optics there were at the event, Campbell told the crowd the nuns' message was actually about bridging political divides.
"Transforming our politics is what our society needs," she said. "We are so hungry to end the polarization, and Pope Francis is coming to the U.S. to tell us get our act together....We the people can be what that Arch promises, not what the courthouse represents."
Reverend Traci Blackmon of the Christ the King United Church of Christ in St. Louis, who attended the rally, said the nuns will bring average Americans' stories to policymakers, which she hopes will "put the humanity back into our political process."
"Our nation is hurting and we have tried everything political that we can to stop that hurting," she said. "We’ve tried mandates to stop that hurting, we’ve tried name-calling to stop the hurting, we’re protesting to stop that hurting, but the reality is that the wounds we suffer from can only be healed by love. And that love is what this bus is and this journey represent: the power of listening to one another’s stories, the power of truly hearing of what we have to say to one another and see the divinity in one another."
She said even after Pope Francis finishes his U.S. appearances, the nuns will help keep his message at the forefront of national conversations, and said the Nuns on the Bus show "that the nuns once again are already ahead of the mark and have begun even before he gets here."
Sister Angie Murphy, a Sister of Loretto who lives in Webster Groves, attended the rally to see Campbell, who she called "wonderful" and "courageous." She said the nuns' message of taking action, particularly around the issue of minimum wage, resonated with her and she is glad to see them taking their words to Washington.
"It’s a beginning. They are on their way, so we are counting on them," Murphy said. "They seem to be here for every big issue that has come up, so I expect to see them very much be part of the future and be part of our political process, too."
Sister Best said nuns have a unique ability to spark these conversations.
"People gravitate to the bus," she said. "It’s an interesting symbol - you know, Nuns on the Bus. And there’s something about it; people might have been taught by sisters, or have a memory that’s a positive memory of sisters in their lives. It brings people together."
At the end of the rally, the audience did approach the bus, using black markers to sign the vehicle as a pledge to work toward to social justice. Sisters also passed out cards on which people could sign an oath of commitment.
The Nuns on the Bus also held a town hall meeting Thursday evening at Saint Louis University's St. Francis Xavier College Church.